This photograph, taken by Tim Gaweco on the last day of 2015, is of St. Agnes catholic church in the famous American city of Detroit. This image represents much more than just the passing of time and changing times. It represents the unnatural and untimely death of a community hub, and a once handsome gothic inspired building. Moreover, it embodies a devastating instance of how enforcing unjust law tore a community apart.
No one could have known it back then, but an act of aggression (the enforcing of licensing laws) by Detroit police officers some four decades earlier marked the beginning of the end of St. Agnes church, and indeed its community.
Before I tell that story, let’s briefly discuss the difference between just and unjust laws. Just laws are ones that do not restrict an individual’s freedom to peacefully use their person or property as they wish – e.g. laws against theft and murder. Unjust laws are ones that do. We know these as legislation and regulation. Licensing laws are an example. The key point is that unjust laws restrict peaceful, voluntary behaviour – not violent, forceful behaviour.
The 12th Street riot
At a quarter to four on the morning of July 23rd 1967, a team of police officers raided the unlicensed weekend drinking club in the office of the United Community League for Civic Action on 12th street, which was the neighbourhood of St. Agnes church. While the police were arranging to arrest and transport the 82 people present (all black), a large crowd of people gathered outside.
In the late sixties, despite Detroit having a large and prosperous black middle class, discrimination by police and local government towards blacks was still a significant problem. Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly given this social backdrop, the crowd began pelting police cars with stones after a doorman at the club threw a bottle at a police officer.
After the police had retreated, an adjacent store was looted. Mob mentality took hold as the crowd grew to also include a significant number of white people. Looting and vandalism engulfed the neighbourhood and lasted five days. By the time the collective energy was used up and order was restored most of the buildings around St. Agnes had burned to the ground. The church itself was left unscathed.
The economic cost was such and the community was so traumatized by the rioting that many people never came back, and many left. As a result St. Agnes church’s attendance numbers dwindled and over time it became conspicuous by its presence. In 2006 it closed its doors and about a year later the stained glass windows and pews were removed.
Seemingly, that was the moment the diocese accepted that all hope of its flock’s return and a revival was lost. What was once a monument to brotherly love is now a monument to the destructive power of coercive Authority under legalised mob rule and, to a lesser extent, the social psychological phenomena of mob mentality. It is remarkable that the church wasn’t quickly destroyed by rioting over a week, but slowly by the social consequences over decades.
Coercive authority tears the fabric of society
There is no moral justification for looting and damaging of innocent people’s property, but clearly the catalyst for the outbreak of rioting was the actions of Detroit police. Furthermore, if the owners and patrons of the raided drinking club had been white and thus had no reason to believe police were targeting them because of their skin colour, then it’s likely that any resistance wouldn’t have morphed into a full-blown riot.
If the police force hadn’t been used by lawmakers to enforce unjust licensing laws, or in other words for social engineering, then the deadly and enormously damaging 12th street riot would never have happened. And St. Agnes church would still be standing proud with light pouring through its stained glass windows, instead of rain through its broken windows.
Perhaps every image of a large-scale abandoned building is haunting and evocative to some degree, but St. Agnes church in Detroit is different. This photograph capturing its now rotting façade and its colourless windows saddens me not only as a lover of ecclesiastical and gothic architecture, but also as a human being pained by the thought of a community’s sense of peace and togetherness smashed by the unthinking brute force of coercive authority.
The demise of a church may be welcomed by some atheists, but the untimely and unnatural death of St Agnes church in Detroit, precipitated by the (well-meaning but illiberal) actions of the agency claiming the exclusive right to protect the freedoms of those who built it and gave it meaning, should not please anyone who values free and peaceful societies.